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How sites can help fight online harassment – an interview with Sue Scheff


    Sue Scheff is an author, parent advocate and cyber advocate who is promoting awareness of cyberbullying and other online issues. She is the author of three books, Wit’s EndShame Nation and Google Bomb.

    We had the opportunity to conduct an interview with her where she talked about victims experience of online sexual harassment/online shaming and shared her opinion on what sites can do to help fight the problem. 

    Interviewer: Hi Sue, thanks a lot for taking the time to share your knowledge, I know you are extremely busy! You’re the author of Shame Nation and Google Bomb, what were you hoping to achieve by releasing them?

    Sue Scheff: Awareness. Most importantly, giving a voice to the voiceless.

    After I wrote Google Bomb I was stunned by the outpour of people from all walks of life – from all over the world – that contacted me with their stories of Internet defamation/shaming/harassment. People were silently suffering from cyber-bullets, like myself, on the verge of financial ruin and all were emotionally struggling.

    Google Bomb was the roadmap to helping people know there are legal ramifications and consequences of online behavior.

    By 2012, I was taken back by the constant headlines of bullycide. Names like Tyler Clementi, Amanda Todd, Rebecca Sedwick, Audrie Potts – I knew how they felt – like there was no escaping this dark-hole of cyber-humiliation. At 40 years-old, when this happened to me, I had the maturity to know it would eventually get better. These young people don’t.

    Google Bomb was the book to help people understand their legal rights, but with the rise of incivility online, Shame Nation needed to be written to help people know they can survive digital-embarrassment, revenge porn, sextortion and other forms of online hate. I packed this book with over 25 contributors and experts from around the world – to share their first-hand stories to help readers know they can overcome digital disaster. I also include digital wisdom for online safety and survival.

    Interviewer: You’re a victim of online harassment and won a landmark case of internet defamation and invasion of privacy. Can you please try to explain your experience?

    Sue Scheff: In 2003, I was attacked online by what I refer to as a disgruntled client, definitely a woman that didn’t like me. Once she started her attack, the gang-like mentality of trolls joined in. These trolls and this woman created a smear campaign that took an evil twist. From calling me a child abuser,  saying I kidnap kids, exploit families, a crook and more. Things went towards the sexual side when they claimed to be auctioning my panties (of course they never meet me – or had anything) but to anyone reading this, how do you explain these are malicious trolls out to destroy me?

    As an educational consultant, I help families with at-risk teens find residential treatment centers. These online insults nearly destroyed me. I ended up having to close my office, hire an attorney and fight.

    By 2006 I was both emotionally and financially crippled. In September 2006 I won the landmark case in Florida for Internet defamation and invasion of privacy for $11.3M in a jury verdict. Lady Justice cleared my name, but the Internet never forgets. Fortunately for me, the first online reputation management company opens their doors that summer. I was one of their first clients. To this day – I say my lawyer vindicated me – but it’s ORM that gave me my life back.

    Interviewer: You’ve also met many other victims of online harassment, online shaming, revenge porn etc. How are victims affected, both in short and long-term?

    Sue Scheff: Trust and resilience.

    I’ve spoken to many victims of online hate. The most common theme I hear is the lack of trust we (they) have of others (both online and offline) initially. With me, I know I become very isolated and reserved. My circle of trusted friends became extremely small – the fact is, no one understands this pain unless they have walked in your shoes. When researching Shame Nation – others expressed feeling the same way.

    The good news is, with time we learn to rebuild our trust in humanity through our own resilience. This doesn’t happen overnight. It’s about acceptance – understanding that the shame doesn’t define you and it’s your opportunity to redefine yourself.

    The survivors you will read about in Shame Nation have inspiring stories of hope. They all learned to redefine themselves – out of negative experiences. It’s what I did – and realized that many others have done the same.

    Tweet this: “no one understands this pain unless they have walked in your shoes.”- Sue Scheff, about victims of online hate. #wetoo

    Interviewer: Where do you see the biggest risk of being exposed to online sexual harassment?

    Sue Scheff: Online reputation and emotional distress.

    Today we face the majority of businesses and universities that will use the Internet to search your name prior “interviewing” you. Depending on how your name survives a Google rinse cycle, it will dictate your financial future – career or job wise.

    Just because you have a job – doesn’t mean you’re out of hot water. More than 80% of companies have social media policies in place. If your name is involved in sexual misconduct (scandal) online – you could risk losing your job. Colleges are also implementing these social media policies.

    PEW Research says the most common way for adults to meet – is online. If you’re a victim of cyber-shame, online sexual harassment, revenge porn or sextortion – this content could hinder your chances of meeting your soul mate.

    The emotional distress is overwhelming. You feel powerless and hopeless. Thankfully today there are resources you can turn to for help.

    Interviewer: Do you think this issue is growing or are we any closer to solving it?

    Sue Scheff: Yes… and no.

    In a 2017 PEW survey, over 80% of researchers predicted that online harassment will get worse over the next decade – this includes revenge porn and sexual harassment. This is a man-made disaster, and can only be remedied by each of us taking responsibility for our actions online and educating others. Education is the key to prevention. I believe the #MeToo and Times Up movement have brought more awareness to this topic, but I fear not enough is being done about it for the online world. It’s too easy to use a keypad as a legal lethal weapon.

    The good news is that we are seeing stronger revenge porn laws being put in place, as well as more social platforms, are responding to removing content when flagged as abusive. Years ago, we didn’t have this – though it may be slow, it’s moving in the right direction.

    Interviewer: What would be your advice to internet users today on how to avoid, prevent and fight harassment?

    Sue Scheff: Digital wisdom.

    I’m frequently asked, “how can I safely sext my partner?” I give the same answer every time. The Internet and social media were not and is not intended for privacy. We only have to think of the Sony email hacking or Ashley Madison leaks to know that no one is immune to have their private habits exposed to the world wide web. You should have zero expectancies of privacy if sending any sexual message via text or otherwise. Several studies concur – a majority of adults will share personal and private messages and images of their partner without their partner’s consent.

    Your friend today could quickly turn into a foe tomorrow. Divorce rates are climbing – what used to be revenge offline with charging up your ex’s credit cards, now has longer-term consequences when your nudes can go viral or other comprising images or content. E-venge (such as revenge porn) is how ex’s will take out their anger. Don’t give them that power.

    If you find you are a victim of online harassment or online hate – report it and flag it to the social platform. Be sure to fill out a form – outlining how it’s violating their code of conduct – email them professionally (never use profanity or a harsh tone).

    I encourage victims not to engage with the harasser. Be sure to screenshot the content – then block them. If you feel this is a case that will get worse and it needs to be monitored, you can ask a friend to monitor it for you so you don’t have to be emotionally drained from it. I also tell the friend not to engage – and to let you know if it gets to a point that it may need legal attention – that your life is in danger or your business is suffering.

    Interviewer: What is your opinion on what sites can do to help fight this problem?

    Sue Scheff: In a perfect world – we would say stricter consequences offline for the perpetrators – which would hinder them from doing this online in the first place.

    Strengthen the gatekeepers: User -friendlier and a speedier response time.

    Although sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are stepping up and want to alleviate online harassment, many people still struggle with figuring out the reporting methods and especially the poor response time. Where are the forms? After that – the response time can be troubling – from what victims have shared with me. When you’re a victim of sexual harassment, these posts are extremely concerning – every minute feels like a year.

    I personally had a good experience on Facebook – when I wrote about a cyber-stalker on my public page. It was addressed and handled within 48 hours.

    Systems should be in place that if a comment/image is flagged as abusive (harassment) by more than 3-5 unique visitors, it should be taken down until it can be investigated by the social platform’s team. I think we can relate to the fact that online abuse reported daily is likely overwhelming social media platforms – however, I believe they should give us the benefit of the doubt until they can investigate our complaint.

    Interviewer: What do you think about the idea of using computer vision (AI) to spot and block nude pictures before they are submitted on a dating site?

    Sue Scheff: If dating sites were able to implement AI for suspicious content, it would be a great start to cut-back on sexual harassment and keeping the users safer.

    Interviewer: Where can victims turn for support?

    Sue Scheff:

    Cyber Civil Rights Initiative

    Without My Consent

    Online SOS Network

    Are you a victim of online sexual harassment or cyberbullying?

    Please heed Sue’s advice and reach out for support.

    If you are site looking to help in the fight?

    Contact us to see how AI and content moderation can help keep your users safe.

    Sue Scheff - fight online harassment

    Sue Scheff

    Sue Scheff is a Nationally Recognized Author, Parent Advocate and Internet Safety Advocate. She founded Parents Universal Resources Experts, Inc. in 2001.

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